Provocative conversations, violence, and awakening

A brief reflection on a troubling, enlightening week

Hey V&V fam ✌️

You’ve watched hours of video footage this week, both appalling and uplifting. You’ve seen emotional speeches and calls to action. You’ve been linked to resources. If I’m honest, at this particular moment I don’t have much value to add. I have no authority on the subject, no fresh data, no novel insight about what’s going on. I’m just observing, reflecting, and thinking about how to contribute moving forward.

For what it’s worth, I’m going to briefly share some thoughts that have been on my mind.

Violence & awakening

I’ve had very interesting, difficult, and provocative conversations this week with friends, family, and colleagues. Some of these conversation are clashes of politics. Most are lamentations shared between politically aligned minds, but even these tend to feature skirmishes about the subtleties of speech, policy, morality. All of the conversations have been healthy. While this is a dark and painful time in many ways — and I must acknowledge I am certainly distanced, relatively safe from the pain that black people are enduring and processing — I find the conversations encouraging. We are getting some visceral, nasty sh*t out in the open.

As a researcher, I look for the insight in a situation, something enlightening about patterns in perceptions or behavior changes. We might ask: Why are we seeing violence in our streets?

In our conversations, I do believe we should welcome dissent, nuance, and preserve the conditions for divergent thinking about things like protesting and rioting. But, to me, the insight — the why — doesn’t need debating. For generations, our fellow Americans, our fellow citizens, our black friends and neighbors and colleagues and yes, often “strangers” in our communities, have tried to speak out, but have been silenced by a perpetual knee on their neck. You don’t need to trust my words in this obscure newsletter. Just roll the tape.

And it should be clear that the violence does not originate from one side. For every unfortunate act of violence committed by individuals or crowds in the streets, there are now myriad counter-images of shocking police brutality. Of course there are negative consequences and externalities to any type of violence. But, in our conversations about this historical moment, especially if oppositional, we should fight to clarify that the violence from the protesting/rioting public is not an expression of nihilism. Without condoning it, we can acknowledge that it has a meaningful effect on a macro scale. The country, the world, is now paying attention. A large portion of the public — at least much larger than other recent moments of unrest — are now speaking the words: black lives matter.

Without seeking it out, I happened to play the song Violence by Parquet Courts the other day. I like this album and have listened to the song numerous times. But it really hit different this week. Below are the lyrics; they are incomplete, and I’ve stitched a few stanzas together for brevity.

These lyrics remind us that violence is always present, below the surface, a dark undercurrent flowing through society. And that can be a frightening thought. But what’s really frightening, and should awaken us, is the fact that for many Americans, the violence is very much on the surface, the everyday surface of walking around a city or driving through a neighborhood. For some, there’s nothing conceptual or abstract about it — it is tangible, harsh, and alters the way they move through the world. Violence is daily life.

Some of you might know that Vivid & Vague originated as a book I published several years ago. I won’t link to it now, but I did want to share a couple of lines from the book that came to mind this week:

I had uncovered foreignness at a hyper-local level, but confirmed no intruder; this, one in a series of incisive syllogisms, catalyzed the end of a certain era of me. Shit was about to hit the fan, but I took solace in the fact that at least I would no longer be full of shit.

These lines, when written, were part of a meditation on personal philosophy. Nothing to do with race or injustice. But, in a new context, I can read them as being about this moment, about not looking away anymore. When we realize something profound, it’s okay — and, in fact, empowering — to let a previous, now incompatible, era of ourselves die. To take solace in the fact that we are no longer full of bullshit assumptions or prejudices, to look forward to being a new version of us.

From time to time, I’ll recommend some reads. A few years back, I read Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2016 (it was the first time a U.S. writer was awarded the prize). It’s a brilliant satire, simultaneously hilarious and devastating, a thoroughly creative and emotionally stirring commentary on race, America, and the issues of race in America. I highly recommend it.

Thanks for reading this week’s V&V. I wish you a restful, reflective weekend. Or productive days of activism, productive conversations. I wish you well. ✌️